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A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From

A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From

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A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From

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May 30, 2020


The origin of the names of many English towns, hamlets and villages date as far back as Saxon times, when kings like Alfred the Great established fortified borough towns to defend against the Danes. A number of settlements were established and named by French Normans following the Conquest. Many are even older and are derived from Roman placenames. Some hark back to the Vikings who invaded our shores and established settlements in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Most began as simple descriptions of the location; some identified its founder, marked territorial limits, or gave tribal people a sense of their place in the grand scheme of things. Whatever their derivation, placenames are inextricably bound up in our history and they tell us a great deal about the place where we live.
May 30, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

John Moss is the author of two dozen books, including Invisible Among the Ruins and Being Fiction, a collection short stories. His Quin and Morgan mysteries explore the breadth of a full life and its inevitably awkward end. Moss is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

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A History of English Place Names and Where They Came From - John Moss


Part One

Common English Placename Elements

From Old English, Old Scandinavian, Middle English and Celtic

This section has been included so that readers might be able to work out the origin of some of the meanings of the names of English towns, villages and hamlets that have not been included in this book for themselves. The following lists are not exhaustive, but contain most of the more commonly found placename elements.




Part Two

Migrations and Invasions

The Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans

The Celtic Tribelands

Although the British Isles had been occupied since prehistoric times, the earliest of its identifiable inhabitants were Celtic-speaking Britons, distant ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish, who probably arrived on these shores around 5,000 years ago. It would be an over-simplification to say that the Celts were one people; they were made up of different tribes. The Romans referred to them collectively as Belgae, people of Indo-European descent who shared a common gene pool element and had migrated westward from central Europe to the Atlantic coast during the Mesolithic period (sometimes called the Middle Stone Age).

Some of the earliest written Greek sources describe these aboriginal Britons as Keltoi, and the Romans called them Celtae. Initially, the new arrivals probably spoke a variety of Germanic languages, related to ancient Dutch or Frisian. Later, these developed into a variety of proto-Gallic dialects, one form of which was Brythonic, (or Brittonic), which gradually became better known as Celtic and elements of which survive almost intact in modern Welsh.

The Celts left little by way of language; ancient British placenames survive in only a few places in England. Notable examples are in Cornwall and Devon, whose county names derive directly from the Cornovii and Dumnonii tribes, whose territories they were. But there is little else, largely because names were hardly ever written down. What survives of the Celtic tongue exists in Brythonic Welsh, Irish Erse, Scottish Gaelic, Manx on the Isle of Man and a few places on the west coast of Cumbria.

In the main, the Celts left us monuments – stone circles, henges, barrows and hill forts. Most of their placenames have either been lost to us or replaced by the Latin names which the Romans overlaid on their settlements.

The Roman Occupation

The Roman legions, led by Julius Caesar, first arrived on the shores of Britain and landed in the Isle of Thanet, Kent in 55BC. It is not clear why they came; some believe it was for tin and copper, others that it was to trade and yet others that it was little more than to expand the empire. Whatever the reason, the Celtic-speaking Britons did not welcome them. Caesar’s stay was brief and saw him fleeing back to Europe after a shocking military defeat. He tried again a year later, this time successfully, and is thought to have advanced well into Kent and Middlesex as far as the River Stour. His campaigns were few and short; Julius Caesar’s attempts at invasion ultimately failed and he returned to France leaving behind no occupation force.

It was not until 43AD, under the Emperor Claudius, that a new landing took place, followed by the subsequent Roman conquest of the land they called Britannia. Their legions immediately set up fortified encampments, brought with them Roman culture and bestowed Latin names upon their settlements. They named places like Aquae Sulis (Bath),

Eboracum (York), Camulodunum (Colchester), Deva (Chester), Mamuciam (Manchester), Salinae (Droitwich), and many others. There are also the innumerable placename references to Roman settlements and military establishments that bear variations on the Latin word ‘ceastre’, including townships like Horncastle, Castlethwaite, Bicester, Lanchester, Godmanchester, Chesterfield and Caister, to name but a few.

Roman culture and law dominated the British province for 350 years, before their withdrawal in 410 in order to defend Rome from the threat of the Visigoth invasions. In the political and security vacuum that followed, Britain lay militarily unprotected and Pictish tribes from Scotland seized the opportunity and began systematic raids against northern England. With the Romans gone, Britain was prey to any who fancied their chances.

The Anglo-Saxon Invasions

When the Roman legions left Britain, the insecurity created by their departure was soon seized upon by warring tribes from the near continent: Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes. These various tribes are generally grouped into one single entity and for historical purposes they have been called Anglo-Saxons. According to Bede, the Saxons first arrived in Britain around 449, though other accounts place it a few years earlier. In a text by the sixth century Welsh monk and historian Gildas, entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Overthrow and Conquest of Britain), written around 540, he described how the sinfulness and wickedness of British nobles had brought down the wrath of God and presaged the arrival of heathen Saxons, to help protect Britain, thus:

‘The barbarians (the Saxons)… introduced as soldiers to the island, to encounter… any dangers in defence of their hospitable entertainers, obtain[ed] an allowance of provisions which for some time, being plentifully bestowed, stopped their doggish mouths. [But, they went on to] break the treaty and plunder the whole island. In a short time, they follow[ed] up their threats with deeds’.

Gildas’ religious fervour often overshadowed his objectivity, but in general terms his narrative was borne out by actual events. Weak leadership and feudal wars from British tribal chieftains did indeed see them initially inviting Saxons to Britain as mercenaries to assist in keeping the Pictish and Scottish tribes from the north at bay. But other uninvited Saxon invasions soon followed, as did successive migrations of yet more Germanic tribes like the Angles, Jutes, Francs and Frisians. The Saxon guests had become invaders, and there followed a period often called the Dark Ages, when according to Gildas, these warlike European tribes ravaged and pillaged their way across much of eastern Britain. Gildas’ account goes on to describe the virtual genocide of its Celtic people, while those that survived were driven to western extremities of Britain – to Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland.

However, not all Saxon incursions were aggressive, and many would eventually settle, intermarry and become assimilated, so that over time a gradual but dramatic change in the linguistic, genetic and cultural demography of Britain took place. Its people had become Anglo-Saxons. This led to the development of the many Saxon placenames that exist throughout England today; it would be true to say that the majority of towns, villages and hamlets contain several, if not all elements of the Saxon language, which we call Old English.

Saxon Britain was far from a united nation. Although a distinct Anglo-Saxon identity and language became well established, at least in the eastern half of Britain, its disparate petty kingdoms were often in dispute with each other, particularly with regard to territorial boundaries. The Saxons were also largely illiterate and left behind little written history. Also, they seemed to have little interest in the far south-west of England – Devon and Cornwall were subject to only a few incursions by them, and consequently, many Old Celtic placenames still exist there.

The Danes and Danelaw

By the eighth century, separate kingdoms existed in Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent and East Anglia. These piecemeal political and territorial divisions and the lack of a single authoritarian rule prompted invasion by Scandinavian raiders from Norway, Sweden and Denmark; the Saxons knew them as Danes – many called them Norsemen or Vikings.

Most commentators agree that the Danes first invaded Britain in 793, when Vikings raided the monastery at Lindisfarne, the holy island located off the north-east coast of England, slaying its priests and looting its treasures. By 866, the Vikings had arrived in York, (which they called Jorvik). At that time it was the second biggest city in the country after London. In the years that followed, Danes systematically advanced south and westwards, establishing a territory that became known as the Danelaw. Saxon settlements paid protection or tribute money, known as Danegeld, to avoid destruction and bloodshed. Prayer books at that time bore the bidding words ‘God save us from the Northmen’. By the late-ninth century the Vikings had taken all of England except the Kingdom of Wessex. Wisely, its king, Alfred, made an uneasy peace with them, paying a large sum in order to effect a compromise.

The Kingdom of Wessex was the last remaining independent Anglo-Saxon part of Britain. Its capital at Wintancaester (Winchester), stood out against the inexorable advance of Danish occupation. Alfred, commonly known as Alfred the Great, was determined to stop their advance. Matters came to a head when Wessex came under Danish attack in 870; a year later Alfred’s army defeated a Danish army at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire.

Alfred saw the need for the unification of the whole nation in defence of the realm, and urged other petty kings to put aside all differences and work to create a single new nation – England. He reorganised his army and built a series of well-defended and fortified settlements, or ‘burhs’, to protect what remained of England from the inexorable Danish advance, work that was continued by his daughter Aethelflaed along with her brother and Alfred’s successor, Edward the Elder. In the event, the Danes were finally stopped in 910 at Wodensfeld (Woden’s Field, now called Wednesfield, in the West Midlands) – sometimes known as the Battle of Tettenhall. The battle was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles thus:

‘The English and the Danes fought at Tettenhall, on August 6th, and the English took the victory… They put the force to flight and killed many of them. King Eowils was killed, King Healfden, Eorl Ohter, Eorl Scvurfa, Hold Athulf, Hold Benesing, Anlaf the Swart, and many more. The same year, Aethelflaed built the burh of Bremesbyrig [thought to be Bromesberrow, near Ledbury in Herefordshire].’

Initially, the Danes had few intentions of settling in England; their interest lay in obtaining tribute or protection money. In 1006, it was recorded that King Aethelred paid 36,000 pounds of silver in tribute, and by 1012, the annual amount had risen to 48,000 pounds.

King Alfred had been a devout, cultured and literate man who fostered the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, personally making many translations and setting up schools of learning. By the 890s, his laws, charters and coinage referred to him as ‘King of the English’. A treaty of Alfred and the Danish King Guthrum had been ratified in 886, which defined the boundaries of English and Danish territories, creating an uneasy peace between the two peoples, albeit with frequent treaty violations.

Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan quite brilliantly took personal control of the minting of the nation’s coinage, controlling the number of moneyers that each borough and township could support, granting official licences and having his likeness stamped onto every coin that was minted. This single act demonstrated Athelstan’s handle on real power; the effect was to create a sense of unification and nationhood, in a way that Alfred had hoped to achieve. Around 890, the term ‘Engaland’ was being used to describe what was rapidly becoming a unified nation. Athelstan went on to invade Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, whose kings swore him fealty; still a far from united kingdom, but he had created a virtual empire.

Athelstan, in common with the other immediate heirs and successors of King Alfred, had established a powerful ruling dynasty, that oversaw a land that was prosperous and well governed for best part of a century. However, that all changed when Ethelred II ascended the English throne in April 1016. Commonly held to have been one of the weakest, poorly advised and potentially most disastrous kings of England, Ethelred’s reign saw the reemergence of Viking incursions. In 982, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles recorded that:

‘Three ships of Vikings came up into Dorset, and ravaged in Portland the same year. Also that year, London was burnt, and two eorldormen passed away.’

Despite peace offerings and treaties, Danish incursions occurred almost yearly between 997 and 1014, with villages in Kent, Sussex and Essex burnt to the ground and people put to the sword. In 1013, King Swein (Forkbeard) of Denmark landed ‘with a heathen force’ and declared himself King of Northumbria and eastern England. Finally, events came to a head at the Battle of Ashingdon, when the English army, led by Edmund Ironside, was defeated and utterly destroyed by a Danish army lead by Cnut, King of Denmark.

Danish Kings

The merging of English and Danish culture was effectively finalised when in September 1015, Cnut (sometimes known as Canute), acceded to the English throne. His first act was to banish or execute any potential Saxon rivals and threats. However, his accession saw him transformed from a hitherto ruthless Viking warrior into a wise and respected ruler with a shrewd grasp of government and administration, upholding codes of law that had been established by the Saxon kings before him. Added to this, his fortuitous marriage to Emma, the widow of the Saxon King Ethelred, saw Danish and Saxon conflict all but suspended.

In the years that followed, like the Saxon invaders had done before them, the Danes became settlers and farmers and were assimilated into the English culture, so that during the first few decades of the eleventh century the country achieved relative peace and a viable Anglo-Norse accommodation had been established.

The influence of the Scandinavian language is still evident in many placenames, particularly in the eastern counties of England. Places like Grimsby, Wetherby, Selby and Whitby bear witness to a Danish legacy, as the Old Norse suffix ‘by’, indicated a village, farmstead or settlement, very much as did the affix ‘thorpe’ in placenames like Scunthorpe, Mabelthorpe and Cleethorpes.

In 1042, Cnut died, and with all his natural lineage at an end, Edward the son of King Ethelred and grandson of King Alfred inherited the throne as Edward the Confessor, and became the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England.

Unlike his forebears, Edward was not a soldier, but was a pious, studious man. The real power behind the throne lay in the hands of the somewhat unscrupulous Saxon Earl Godwin of Wessex, who had gained influence during Cnut’s reign, and who for a while occupied an important role as chief counsellor and mentor in Edward’s court. However, in time, Godwin’s corrupt ambitions found disfavour and Edward banished him, along with his family.

Most villages and townships in Anglo-Saxon England kept little or no records, and at a time when language tended to be passed on by oral tradition, their meanings are lost to us. What little material that was written down tended to be on a local parish by parish basis, with churches and monasteries forming the mainstay of historical records. Unfortunately, most of this information treasure store was destroyed along with the convents, friaries and other religious houses in Henry VIII’s sixteenth century Dissolution of the Monasteries.

During the Confessor’s reign, the rudiments of English were firmly established, with common elements found in placenames throughout England. Places like Rotherham, Nottingham, Birmingham, Cheltenham and Grantham, for example, all bear the affix ‘ham’, a recognised Old English word for a village or homestead; townships like Portsmouth, Falmouth, Exmouth, Yarmouth, Avonmouth, Weymouth and Bournemouth all derive from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘mutha’, meaning a river mouth or estuary; towns and cities like Bury, Salisbury, Banbury, Canterbury and Aylesbury refer to fortified places or strongholds, (‘burhs’), as do Peterborough, Loughborough and Middlesbrough, variations on the original Old English word. Saxon England seemed set fair for peace and prosperity, until the Confessor’s death in January 1066, and the arrival of Duke William from Normandy.

It is commonly believed that during an earlier visit by his cousin William, Edward may have promised him the succession of the English crown; this is certainly what William claimed. However, when Harold Godwinson inherited the function of royal adviser in 1053, he effectively became the real power behind the throne as Edward spent his time in prayer and studying the scriptures. When Edward died and was buried in Westminster Abbey, Harold took the crown of England that same day.

The Norman Conquest

Harold’s assumption of the English throne in January 1066 was done in great haste and even many of his own countrymen regarded him as a usurper; there were other more legitimate claimants to the crown. Among them were the young boy Edgar the Atheling, Harald Hadrada of Norway and Duke William of Normandy. William was sorely vexed at being overlooked, especially as the matter had been decided in his absence and with an importunate degree of urgency so that he was determined to claim what he saw as his right to the English throne.

The Norman Conquest of England that began later that year was protracted and bloody; the Saxons did not take kindly to their new overlords. Especially so, in that they were foreign – they spoke Norman French while the general populace spoke Saxon English. Further, the Normans founded very few new settlements but undertook the systematic confiscation of the manors and estates of the Saxon earls and thegns. William also gave manorial grants to those knights who had supported him in the invasion, and this further fomented nationwide unrest. The northern counties were particularly fierce in their opposition, so that William saw fit to put down all uprising and dissent with vicious retribution. Towns, villages and crop fields were razed to the ground or put to the torch. Men, women, children and all cattle put to the sword. In 1087, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles described William’s treatment of subjugated Saxons and even his own family members:

‘A hard man he [William] was, and fierce; no man dared against his will. He had eorls in chains, who went against his will; bishops he deposed from their bishoprics and thegns he sent to prison. Next he did not spare his brother Odo; he was a very powerful bishop in Normandy – Bayeux was his bishopric – and he was the foremost man next to the king.’

William, Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. Yet William was never English and neither were his chief ministers. Norman French was the language of nobility and power – Saxon English was only spoken by commoners. Even so, over time, the influence of the French language made itself known in placenames throughout the new Norman Kingdom of England. Norman usurpers proceeded to add their own family names to confiscated manors and estates. Townships like Shepton took on the Malett family name to become Shepton Mallett; the Old Manor of Wootton had the Bassett name appended and it became Wootton Bassett; Leighton had the Busard (or Buzzard) family name appended to it to become Leighton Buzzard. Places like Ashby became Ashby de la Zouch, after their new Norman lords of the manor. There were others: Chapel-en-le-Frith, Ashby-de-la-Launde, Naughton Beauchamp, Beaulieu, Redmarley D’Abitot, Little Hautbois, Stanstead Mountfitchet – all derived directly from their French places of birth or their family names.

The Conqueror’s Great Survey of 1086 did much to set England’s placenames down in writing, and would be responsible for the many variants on the names of places. It comes as no surprise that the commissioners charged with making the audit were Norman French, and their interviewees were mainly Saxon, so that language barriers and misinterpretations were inevitable. Also, most Saxons would have been illiterate and would not have known how to spell the name of their village – names would have been passed on by oral tradition, and probably in a local dialect. The upshot was a plethora of name variations. To take just a few as examples, Pickering in Yorkshire was recorded in the Domesday Book as both Pickeringa and Picheringe; Great Oakley in Essex was written as Accleia and Adem; Hainton in Lincolnshire was entered as Gaintone and as Haintune. There are countless other examples.

Over time, a gradual synthesis of Old English, Scandinavian and Norman French took place, to emerge as Middle English, which in a rudimentary way began to resemble something akin to the Modern English we speak today.

The counties and regions of England referred to in this book.

Britain at the time of King Alfred’s death.

Part Three

Placename Origins

Celtic Placenames

Some of the most ancient of British placenames were laid down several millennia ago by the Celtic peoples who occupied these islands. Most were lost, as subsequent invasions and migrations tended to adapt, change or replace them, so that only a few vestiges remain. The names which the Celtic peoples gave to places would have been in simple descriptive terms: ‘the tribe who live on the hill’, ‘the settlement in the wood’, ‘the people of the valley’, and so on.

These names tended to take one of two forms. In the main they were either topographical names which described the place, or else they were possessive names taken from the founder or chieftain of a settlement. It is a term greatly disliked by many authorities, but the people who are sometimes referred to as the ‘Ancient’ Britons bequeathed names to many of our mountains and rivers. The Malvern Hills of Worcestershire are one example – a Celtic name meaning ‘bare hill’. Then there is the Lake District mountain of Helvellyn, whose name meant ‘pale yellow moorland’. The Quantock Hills of Somerset derive their name from the old British word ‘cantuc’, meaning ‘ridge’ or ‘edge’.

Similarly, many Celtic river names survive to the present day, including the River Thames (‘dark’), the Tyne (‘flowing’), the Calder (‘rushing water’), the Derwent (‘oak’), the Mersey (‘river boundary’), and so forth. Lakes were known to them as ‘meres’, and many still retain that element: Windermere, Grasmere, Buttermere, Mere and Ellesmere are notable examples, but there are many others.

The descriptive typographical name element ‘cumb’ (which is closely related to the Brittonic Welsh word ‘cym’, meaning ‘valley’), is found in places like Ilfracombe and Salcombe in the south-west, Seacombe in Cheshire and Bowcombe on the Isle of Wight. The ancient element ‘pen’ or ‘penn’ was the word the Celts applied to hills, headlands and promontories, and is commonly found in the West Country, Cumbria and in Wales, with examples including Penwortham, Penrith, Pendleton, Pendle, Penge, Penketh and Penistone.

Roman Placenames

The Romans gave their own names to their settlements, which were in the main military garrisons, but only made minor changes to the existing placenames which they came across. When they withdrew from Britain, indigenous Britons adopted Latinised names for these former military installations, adopting the element ‘caestre’, signifying a fortified Roman town or encampment, and resulting in a plethora of towns and cities around Britain which still echo their Roman origins. Places like Chester, Towcester, Tadcaster, Winchester, Castleford, Lancaster, Doncaster, Leicester, Bicester and Castlethwaite are just a few of many.

The Romans created roads. Many tended to be based around existing tracks, which they paved and strengthened to cope with the infrastructure and logistics of large armies and rapid communications. They built new roads as straight as possible to connect their outposts and settlements. These ‘straets’ as the Saxons called them, survive today as Watling Street, Ermine Street, Ichfield Street, Chester-le-Street and Stane Street; the word has also come down to us in common use as the ‘streets’ in every town and city in the British Isles.

Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Placenames

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is frequently used nowadays as a somewhat generic term for a series of Germanic tribes, who made their mark on the new territories which they settled. For example, the Angles gave their name to the East Anglia region where most of their settlements were established. They would also give us the name of the nation – ‘Angleland’ as it would have been called after the Angles, a name that later evolved as ‘Engaland’, or England as it is now. The language that was developing was a synthesis of Saxon with European and Danish additions, so that by the end of the ninth century, the effects had become recognisable as Anglo-Saxon, a form we now know as Old English.

The Frisians gave names to many of their settlements which contain a placename element reflecting their own origin: places like Frisby, Friston, Friesthorpe and Freston – all on the east coast of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Suffolk, where they settled.

Saxon heritage is reflected in the counties of south-east England: Essex means ‘East Saxons’; Sussex means ‘South Saxons’; and Middlesex, the ‘Middle Saxons’. Even Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex harked back to a time when it would have been the territory of the West Saxons.

Apart from topographical and tribal name elements, the Saxons often included animal references in their placenames. For example, Swinton in Greater Manchester means ‘swine village (or settlement)’; townships like Gateshead mean ‘goat’s promontory’; Gosfield means ‘field where geese are found’; Hartlepool and Harlebury both make references to harts (deer or stags), and so on.

The personal names of people are also most common placename elements. The name given to the town of Dudley in the West Midlands, for example, described a ‘leah’, or woodland clearing belonging to a man called Dud or Dudda; Birmingham was probably founded by a man called Beorma; Adwick was a farm owned by Adda; the North Yorkshire village of Giggleswick was named after a man called Gichel or Gikel, and ‘wic’, indicating a dairy farm. Hence, ‘Gikel’s dairy farm’. Levenshulme translates as ‘Leofwine’s island’; the North Yorkshire town of Pickering was probably named after an early settler called Picer or Picher.

Words like ‘hulme’ or ‘holme’, derived from the Old Scandinavian word ‘holmr’ are most common in placenames, and referred to ‘islands’, most typically higher or raised dry ground surrounded by marsh, water or wetlands. Among their number are places like Davyhulme and Hulme in Manchester and Balkholme in East Yorkshire. The Old English word ‘eg’ or ‘ieg’, (commonly corrupted to ‘ey’), had a similar meaning and is found in places like Nunney in Somerset, Oaksey in Wiltshire, North Hinksey in Oxfordshire and Putney in Greater London.

Features of the natural world are also common elements in the naming of places. The Old English word ‘burna’, indicating a brook or stream, (a ‘burn’ as it is known in Scotland), is a common placename element, as in towns like Blackburn, Glyndebourne, Otterburn, Burnley and Slaidburn. Tree and plant species are found in the names like Ashburton, Astbury and Ashton-under-Lyme, where the Saxon word ‘aesc’ means ‘ash tree’, and garlic is found in placenames like Ramsbottom, Ramsey and Ramsden, where ‘hramsa’ was the Saxon word for that plant species. Old English affixes like ‘ac’ or the Old Scandinavian ‘eik’ signified oak trees or acorns, with townships like Acle in Norfolk, Acomb in Northumberland and innumerable places called Acton containing this element in their placenames.

Early settlements that developed around churches and other religious houses were commonly referred to by the affix ‘mynster’, and exist today in places like Westminster, Axminster, Beaminster, Leominster and Kidderminster. Early Christian settlements like Morwenstow, Hibaldstow, Fulstow, Chepstow, Felixstowe and Padstow all contain the Old English element ‘stou’, which referred to a religious meeting site, or latterly to a church. Many others named their settlements after early Christian saints and missionaries, many of whom came from Ireland to convert Saxon pagans and establish churches: these include places like St Ives, Bury St Edmunds, St Asaph, Chalfont St Giles and St David’s. Saints placenames are particularly common in Cornwall.

Alfred the Great and his son Edward’s many townships and settlements which they had fortified against Danish incursions, reflect their new characteristics by the addition of the affix ‘burh’, signifying a stronghold or fortified dwelling, or one of its later variations: these include the towns and cities of Edinburgh, Guisborough, Wappenbury, Bury Thorpe, Bury St Edmunds, Peterborough and Middlesbrough, as well as three towns in England simply called Bury,

The word ‘mutha’, which translates as ‘mouth’, was applied to river estuaries and appears at places where rivers meet the sea, as in Portsmouth, Falmouth, Exmouth and Dartmouth.

Norman Placenames

From 1066, the Normans added another ingredient into the mixing pot of the emerging English language. French elements began to appear in some placenames, especially where there were several places of the same name: the ‘le Street’ affix to Chester-le-Street distinguished this place from Chester; the ‘de la Zouch’ suffix distinguished Ashby de la Zouch from all the other townships called Ashby, and so forth. The Normans were fond of adding their family names to newly acquired manors and estates in order to mark the new territories that King William had so generously doled out to those who had supported him in the Conquest.

The Conqueror also reserved huge tracts of land as his personal possessions, and the affix ‘King’s’ was commonly added to such places as Kingswinford, King’s Lynn, King’s Norton and Kingston-upon-Hull. The princes of the church and various religious houses also benefitted from the king’s beneficence; these included places like Bishop Aukland, Bishop’s Stortford, Bishopthorpe and Bishopsbourne, as well as Churchlawton, Church Stretton and Church Brampton. Then there were the priories and abbeys such as Newton Abbott and Norton Priors. The ‘Priors’ element of Ditton Priors was appended when the manor came into the possession of Wenlock Priory. The Manor of Upton Bishop was given to the Bishop of Hereford. King Stephen granted the village of Hawkshead in Cumbria to the Cistercian monks of Furness Abbey.

Some former Saxon manors and estates were even donated to religious houses in France: for example, the Herefordshire township of Monkland was given into the possession of Conches-en-Ouches Abbey of Saint-Pierre of Castellion in Normandy; the Manor of Much Marcle in Herefordshire was granted to the Abbey of Sainte-Marie of Lyre; other estates went to Cluny Abbey in Normandy… and there are many more such examples. Numerous places bear the mark of a one-time priestly ownership: Prestwich, Preston, Prescot and Prestbury, all of which incorporate the Old English word ‘preost’ (a priest), places meaning ‘priest’s dairy farm’, priest’s farmstead’, priest’s cottages’ and ‘priest’s stronghold’.

The Emergence of Modern English Placenames

The development of English placenames is perfectly illustrated by the changes that occurred to the city of York over the centuries. It began as a small Celtic settlement, known to them by the name Eborakon. The Romans modified and Latinised the name to Eboracum in 71. Later, the Saxons renamed the settlement as Eoforwic. When Danish invaders took it into their possession in 866, they renamed it Jorvik, and the Normans recorded the placename as Euruic in the Domesday Book of 1086. This gradual absorption of the spoken and written tongues of immigrant cultures created the language which the world eventually recognised as English.

Common Placename Elements

Apart from those townships whose placenames ended in ‘cester’ or ‘chester’ (marking early Roman forts), and those terminating in ‘burgh’ or ‘borough’ (the Anglo-Saxon fortified settlements), probably the four other most common placenames endings ‘ton’, ‘ham’, ‘feld’ and ‘ville’.

The first of these is derived from Old English ‘tun’ (which eventually developed into ‘ton’). It was a word used by Saxons and Danes alike to identify an enclosure or a farmstead; an enclosure as we might understand it differed from the Saxons’ perception of the word. Theirs was a time before land was commonly fenced in, or enclosed, a practice that really began in the twelfth century. Before that, the Old English word ‘feld’ (or ‘felda’) indicated open landscape, and not an enclosed area of farmland or meadow, or a ‘field’ as we might understand it. Such enclosed places must have stood out as exceptional in Saxon times. Many survive in townships like Beaconsfield, Fallowfield, Sheffield, Driffield and Cuckfield.

The word ‘tun’ was used by both Saxons and Danes to indicate a wider range of settlements including villages, manors and estates. These include place like Allerton, Netherton, Adlington, Wellington and Bridlington.

Another Anglo-Saxon word, ‘ham’, is marginally different from ‘ton’, but covers many of the same kinds of settlements and includes homesteads, dwellings, manors and estates. Places like Birmingham, Eltham, Nottingham and Durham fall into this category. The similar and easily confused Saxon word ‘hamm’ (with a double-‘m’), signified an enclosure, either enclosed by water or marshland, rather than a dwelling or a homestead.

There are also combinations on both name-end affixes; ‘ham-tun’ for example, signified a home farm or enclosure, or the land on which the homestead stood. Wolverhampton, Kilkhampton, Southampton and Northampton are typical of this concatenation. There is also ‘ham-stede’, where the word ‘stede’ represents the site or location of a dwelling. Hampstead Heath is a perfect example of this word combination, as is Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. Technically, the expression means ‘homestead (or dwelling) and its place (or site)’, and included the dwelling-house, its land and outbuildings – what Domesday referred to as a ‘messuage’.

The word ‘vill’ was in the main a Norman French expression, (which has developed into ‘ville’ in common usage). They also classified a certain type of peasant’s status as ‘villan’ (sometimes ‘villain’ or ‘villein’), and the village where they lived as a ‘vill’. But the word had much wider connotations and could have been used for any settlement, no matter how large or small. Such placename suffixes still survive in English placenames like Pentonville, Morville, Turville and Bournville.

It is not coincidental that while many European languages tend to use a single word to describe all their townships, both great and small, a drive through the French countryside reveals that almost every habitation, whether it is a major city like Paris or Toulouse or the smallest village, will have a road sign pointing to ‘Centre Ville’. Conversely, because of the many languages that have contributed to modern English, there are many words we use for them, and each has a specific connotation. A hamlet is recognised as quite a different sort of habitation to a city for example, and a town is easily distinguished from a village.

The many diverse cultures that have settled in Britain over the past 3,000 years have created a veritable panoply of words at our disposal, and while their origin may be largely lost to us, their meanings have become infused into the names of the places where we live.

Part Four

Land Ownership and Tenancy

Earls, Thegns, Free Men and Serfs

In medieval times, with few exceptions, land belonged to men; Anglo-Saxon society depended largely upon the governance of earls, the ruling nobility of the English shires and answerable directly to the king. It was not an hereditary right, and they were usually chosen from a few outstanding families. Below them were thegns, who received grants of land from them in exchange for service, often of a military nature.

Then there were commoners, known as free men, who held land and did not pay rent to a lord; these were the skilled craftsmen of the time – the blacksmiths, masons and armourers. The remaining group, commonly known as serfs, had no property and worked the land for their overlords in exchange for food and lodgings. Below them were slaves.

The Monarchy and Norman Aristocrats

Following the Conquest and the redistribution of sequestered Saxon lands to Norman barons, the old shires and parishes were effectively redrawn, as new territorial boundaries, or manors came into being. The largest, wealthiest and most profitable manors (about twenty per cent), invariably went to King William himself and to his immediate family. Odo, his ill-fated half-brother and Archbishop of Bayeux was made Earl of Kent and given some of the richest pickings, as was Robert, the Count of Mortain, another half-brother through his mother’s side, whom he created Earl of Cornwall and granted extensive lands throughout England.

Many English places show evidence of Crown ownership: King’s Norton in Birmingham is just one of many examples; others include Kingswinford in the West Midlands; King’s Lynn in Norfolk; and Kingston upon Thames in Greater London, among several dozen other places bearing the mark of the monarch. Then there are those that had the Latin affix ‘regis’ attached (meaning ‘of the king’), to show royal connections, Rowley Regis in the West Midlands and Bognor Regis in West Sussex. Some simply had the word ‘royal’ attached: places like Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Tunbridge Wells. Queens also laid claim to extensive land holdings; their possessions were often clearly marked in their placenames: Queen Charlton and Queen Camel, both in Somerset are examples, as is Queenborough in Kent. Places like Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire and Princetown in Devon show the same royal connections.

Norman aristocracy soon followed suit and staked claim to manorial estates by appending their family names to new acquisitions. Places like the village of Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire was granted to the de Grey family, Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire was held by the Busard family, Milton Clevedon belonged to the de Clevedons, and Redmarley d’Abitot in Gloucestershire had been the country seat of the d’Abitot family since 1066.

Prince Churchmen

Next came the princes of the church – about twenty-five per cent of all English manors went to religious houses. The religious did very well out of William’s Conquest, with ten per cent of all produce given to them directly as tithes for their personal consumption and upkeep. While many lower classes suffered hunger and deprivation in times when the harvest failed, Norman churchmen grew fat on provisions freely given to them.

Apart from the Archbishoprics of Canterbury, Lincoln, York, Durham, Exeter and Winchester, among many others, manorial estates were granted to religious houses in Normandy. Among them were Bishops of the Church of Sainte Marie in Rouen, the Church of Mont-Saint-Michel, as well as Bishops of Coutances, Caen and Rheims. William’s beneficence to the church stemmed from a profound sense of guilt brought about by his often savage repression of Saxon opposition, and in keeping with the deeply pious attitude to the church and the promise of a heavenly afterlife set against the perils of fire and eternal damnation. In this way, William kept the church happy and onside, as well as securing himself a place in heaven, as all good medieval monarchs sought to do.

The church’s influence still remains today in the placenames that reflected their land acquisitions: places like Bishop Auckland in County Durham; Bishop’s Caundle in Dorset; Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire; and Bishop Norton in Lincolnshire are just a few of the many places that fell under their ownership. Other places found their local church attached to the name: places like Church Langton in Leicestershire; Church Minshull in Cheshire; and Church Stretton in Shropshire are typical. Larger townships added the Old English element ‘mynster’, signifying a religious settlements – Kidderminster, Westminster and Leominster are just a few – there are many more.

Females and Land Ownership

Although women held an almost equal status to their menfolk in Anglo-Saxon England, they had few if any rights of land ownership or inheritance. This was invariably passed down through the male line. With few exceptions, women are not known by name and are notoriously absent from manorial and estate ownership. Those who are specifically named in records tend only those of the very highest social status or royal personages.

Consequently, the names of men of significant status feature largely in village placenames: innumerable chieftains’, founders’ and early settlers’ given names were incorporated into the names which were given to early settlements. However, only a handful of places in England derive their names from women. Among these few are Epsom, which was named after Ebbe, its probable female founder; Aldaed was a woman thought to have founded Alderley Edge in Cheshire; Wolverhampton was named after Wulfruna; the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth received its name from an obscure woman called Cynehild; and Royston in Hertfordshire was named after Rohesia.

The Normans were no better at recording land ownership of women. Contemporary accounts record that following the Conquest of 1066, Saxon women were so disenfranchised that many fled to nunneries to avoid forced marriage with Norman soldiers. Even the comprehensive Domesday Book named only a few women with significant landholdings as in general, following the Conquest, apart from a handful of female nobles, women had very low status and their possessions invariably passed as dowries to their husbands.

Of those landholdings recorded in the Great Survey, over 200 places in England were retained as a courtesy by Queen Edith of Wessex, (known in Saxon English as Ealdgyth), the widow of Edward the Confessor; she was said to be the richest woman in England at the time of her death in December 1075. Then there was the mother of King Harold and widow of Earl Godwine of Wessex, Countess Gytha (Thorkelsdottir), who was one of the most important female landholders at the time of the Conquest. As a niece of King William, she received special favour and held great tracts of land in the south of England.

North of the Thames, especially in Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Yorkshire, significant estates and manors were in the possession of Countess Judith de Balliol of Lens, the widow of Earl Waltheof and another niece of William. The Conqueror’s own wife, Queen Matilda of Flanders, was also a major beneficiary of the redistribution of English land and received several mentions in the Great Survey. Other women noted for their land possessions were Countess Godgifu (also known as Godiva, sometimes ‘Goda’, Countess of Mercia and daughter of Ethelred), as well as Ethelred’s wife, Countess Aelfgifu.

Edith (known as ‘Swan-neck’), the former mistress and later wife of King Harold, had been a major landholder before the Conquest, but her lands were given to the Earl Alan of Richmond (known as ‘Alan the Red’). Cristina, daughter of Edward the Exile and Princess of the West Saxons, managed to retain estates in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. She was a nun at the time of Domesday, but had substantial holdings in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.

Tenants and Sub-tenants

Around 170 Norman manorial estates were overseen by appointed tenants-in-chief, usually barons, each handpicked by the sovereign, and supported by a sheriff (or ‘shire reeve’), who administered the estate, its accounts and its courts. In exchange for grants of tenancy, barons were expected to supply men, cavalry and arms to the king’s service when called upon.

Below the barons were under-tenants (or sub-tenants), who paid rent (‘geld’) to the overlord for their land tenancy and were required to provide some form or work like ploughing, harvesting, animal husbandry and other general labouring. Occasionally, in the absence of ready money, rents were paid in kind or in produce.

Finally, a lower serf class were granted small plots of land for their own use provided they worked the lord’s lands or paid rent. These included bordars, cottars and free men. The system was oppressive, draconian and controlled, and the lower classes were tied to the land in a feudal system within which they lived and served, with no right to wander freely. Thus was the social order of England set in place – an order that would exist for several centuries thereafter under Anglo-Norman rule. It also laid the foundation of what many describe as the English class system, which essentially followed this early hierarchy, as the upper class, the middle class and the working class, divisions which were effectively still in place until the end of the twentieth century, and vestiges of which survive in some form to the present day.

Part Five

The North-East

County Durham, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Yorkshire

A map depicting the North-East region of England.

Acaster Malbis

This Yorkshire village derives its placename from three sources. First, ‘a’, from the Old Scandinavian meaning ‘river’; second, the Old English word ‘ceaster’, meaning ‘fortification’, (often the remains of a Roman military settlement); finally the affix ‘Malbis’, after the Malbis family who held the manor in 1252, and attached their family name to distinguish the place from the village of Acaster Selby a few miles away. The placename therefore translates as ‘[place near] the fortification on the river belonging to the Malbis family’. The river in question was the River Ouse. The place was recorded in the Domesday Book as Acastre, listed as a very small estate, with land for two ploughs, supporting just three families in the Ainsty Hundred of the former West Riding, held by Robert Malet in 1086, having been the property of a Saxon man called Alsi before the Norman Conquest. By the twelfth century the placename had been written as Acaster Malebisse.


According to the placename of this Yorkshire village, there is a local connection to royalty, as it translates into modern English as ‘water course [or stream] of the prince’. The name comes from the Old English words ‘aetheling’, meaning ‘prince’ or ‘nobleman’, plus the affix ‘fleot’, meaning ‘water channel’, ‘water course’ or ‘stream’. In 1086, the place was recorded as Adelingesfluet, listed in the Staincross Hundred (then in the West Riding), held by Geoffrey de la Guerche, it having belonged previously to a Saxon called Siward Barn. The manorial estate included land for three ploughs, one league of woodland, a furlong of mixed measures, a church with its own priest and a mill, altogether valued in 1086 at one pound and five shillings.

Adwick le Street/Adwick upon Dearne

These two townships in the ancient Strafforth Hundred and a district of Doncaster both share a common ancestry; they were recorded by the single placename of Adeuuic and refer to their probable founder, a man called Adda, and the Old English element, ‘wic’, signifying a dairy farm. Domesday uses three other spellings of the name: Adewic, Adewinc and Hadewic. The ‘le street’ part of the first placename, like many other townships with similar affixes, refers to its location on a Roman road (in Old English, ‘straet’). The road in question runs from Doncaster to Tadcaster. Hence ‘Adda’s farm on the Roman road’. In 1086, it belonged to Nigel Fossard with Count Robert de Mortain as its tenant-in-chief. Six carucates of the estate were also sub-tenanted to three named men: Swein, Gluniarnh and Arnketil.

Adwick upon Dearne locates it near the river of that name. In 1066, this settlement was held by two men, Regnvald and Wulfheah. By 1086, it had been granted to Roger de Bully (sometimes known as Roger de Busli), a Norman baron who had accompanied William in the conquest of England.


This small North Yorkshire hamlet derived the first part of its name from a Danish man called Acwulf, who may have been its founder or an early leader. It demonstrates the inroads that Scandinavian migrants made into north-eastern England, having originally arrived as opportunist invaders during the eighth century, but eventually putting down roots, intermarrying with indigenous Saxons and developing peaceful settlements. The second element of the placename comes from the Old Scandinavian word ‘thorp’, which signified an outlying farmstead or remote settlement. The placename therefore translates as ‘remote settlement [or farmstead] belonging to Acwulf’. By the time of the Domesday Book, the place had been recorded as Aculestorp, listed within the Hundred Land of Count Alan (of Brittany) in the North Riding, having belonged to Thorkil before the Norman Conquest.

Allendale Town

It is unusual to find an English town placename which actually contains the word ‘town’, but the township of Allendale in Northumberland is one of the few. The name comes from the River Allen on which it stands, a Celtic name, (or perhaps even older), whose meaning is obscure. Two other affixes complete the name: ‘dalr’ was one of several words that Scandinavians used to describe a valley, and ‘tun’, an Anglo-Saxon word that in this case meant ‘village’ or ‘settlement’. Hence, ‘valley settlement of the River Allen’. The placename was written as Alewenton in 1245.

Allerton Bywater

This district of Leeds in Yorkshire has a placename that means ‘farmstead where alders grow beside water’. It comes from the Old English words ‘alor’, meaning ‘alder (tree)’ and ‘tun’, which signified a farmstead. The ‘bywater’ affix was appended sometime in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries, and self-evidently places it by water, in this particular case, beside the River Aire. Domesday recorded the place as Alretune, and listed it as a large manor supporting forty-three villans, twelve smallholders and three priests, in the Skyrack Hundred of the former West Riding, held in 1086 by Ilbert de Lacy, having belonged to Earl Edwin before the Conquest.


Recorded in 1178 as Alnewich, from the Old English ‘wic’ (a specialised farm, like a dairy), indicating a farmstead beside the River Aln, this Northumberland township dates back to the seventh century, though its beginnings are much earlier. Alnwick Castle, begun by Gilbert de Tesson (sometimes ‘de Tisson’), William the Conqueror’s standard bearer, was the seat of the Earls of Northumberland. By 1096, it belonged to the de Vesci family, before it passed to the Percys, who became the principal landowners for the next seven centuries. The placename was recorded as Alnewich in 1178.


Altofts is a village district in Wakefield in West Yorkshire whose name probably comes from a combination of Saxon and Norse words, the Old English word ‘ald’ meant ‘old’, and the Old Scandinavian ‘toft’ referred to homesteads or dwellings. Hence, the placename means ‘old homesteads [or dwellings]’. An early record of the placename was around 1090, when it was written as Altoftes.


This small hamlet near Harrogate historically lay within the former West Riding of Yorkshire and derived its name from the Old English word ‘angrum’ or ‘anger’, meaning ‘grassland’ or ‘pasture’. It was recorded in the thirteenth century as Angrum.

Annfield Plain

A relatively recently created placename, first recorded in 1865, the first word of the name of the township of Annfield Plain in County Durham identifies it as a field, (or more properly ‘open country’), that once belonged to a woman known as Ann. The second word refers to the slopes, known locally as ‘planes’, up which wagons were hauled during the construction of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway in 1834.

Appleton Wiske

As you might have expected, the North Yorkshire village of Appleton Wiske was historically associated with apples. The Old English words which make up the placename are ‘aeppel’, self-evidently referred to an apple, a ‘tun’ was a farmstead, and ‘wisc’, a marshy meadow; in this case part of the flood plain of the River Wiske. The placename may therefore be interpreted as ‘farmstead where apples grow beside the marsh-meadow [of the River Wiske]’. Domesday listed the village as Apeltona, within the Allerton Hundred of the North Riding, held in 1086 by King William.


Aske is a township in the Parish of Easby, near Richmond in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The Aske family held the land as tenants from the Earl of Richmond following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Formerly, the manor and its estates had belonged to a Saxon named Thor.

According to the Domesday Book, the estate was then known as Alreton, ‘in the hundred of Land of Count Alan’, and had just ‘five villagers, three smallholdings and four ploughlands’. The placename is derived from the Old Norse word ‘askr’, which translates as ‘the ash tree’, and probably describes a specific location, possibly a special place or a district boundary of some kind. In early times, the ash tree had mystical significance and was often planted at the outskirts of a settlement or at an important meeting place.

Askham Bryan

Unsurprisingly, this Yorkshire village takes part of its name from a one-time owner, a man called Brian or Bryan. As for the first part of the placename, it comes from the Old English word ‘aesc’, meaning ‘ash tree’, and either ‘ham’, a settlement, or ‘hamm’, an enclosure. Hence the name means ‘Brian’s settlement [or enclosure] where ash trees grow’. The ‘Bryan’ affix distinguishes the place from the nearby village of Askham Richard. Domesday recorded the place as Ascham, in the Ainsty Hundred of the West Riding, held in 1086 by Count Alan of Brittany, having belonged to Earl Edwin of Mercia before the Conquest.


Like Askham Bryan previously, the ‘Ask’ element of this North Yorkshire placename comes from ‘aesc’, or the Old Scandinavian ‘askr’, the ash tree, but with the Old English suffix ‘ric’, meaning ‘ridge’. Therefore the placename means ‘[place by] the ridge where ash trees grow’. Domesday listed the village as Ascric, in the North Riding Land of Count Alan. Before the Conquest, its lord had been a man called Arnketil, and by 1086 his son Gospatric had become a tenant of the manor.


Located firmly within the Danish territory of Danelaw, unsurprisingly, the North Yorkshire village of Austwick derives the first element of its placename from the Norse language. The Old Scandinavian word ‘austr’ meant ‘eastern’, which along with the Saxon word ‘wic’ which signified a specialised farm or a dairy, produces a placename that probably translates as ‘eastern dairy farm’. The ‘eastern’ element is thought to be relative to the nearby settlement of Clapham. The place was listed as Ousteuuic by Domesday and listed in the Amounderness Hundred of the old West Riding, held in 1086 by King William, having belonged to Thorfin of Ravensworth before the Conquest.


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